Analysis

Warsaw Summit Will Test U.S. Gamble on Israeli-Arab Pact Against Iran

Experts agree that although relations between Israel and Arab Sunni states have improved in recent years, that doesn’t mean the U.S. peace plan has a big chance of succeeding

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, left, and White House adviser Jared Kushner listening as President Donald Trump speaks in the Rose Garden of the White House, Washington, January 25, 2019.
Susan Walsh,AP

WASHINGTON - This week’s global summit in Warsaw will test the main pillar of the Trump administration’s policy in the Middle East: The belief that Israel and key Arab states can form an alliance against Iran, even when peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians seem more distant than ever.

According to the Foreign Ministry of Poland, which is hosting the event, at least 10 Arab countries will send representatives to Wednesday and Thursday's summit, called Ministerial to Promote a Future of Peace and Security in the Middle East. The countries expected to attend include Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Qatar, Egypt, Jordan, Morocco and Bahrain. (The Palestinian Authority was invited but is not participating, and has in fact asked other Arab states to boycott the gathering.)

Israel will be represented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As for the United States, it will have a number of senior officials present, including Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and President Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser, Jared Kushner.

The administration originally characterized the summit as focusing on Iran and the threats it poses to different countries in the region. That description caused some European countries – which are less hostile toward Iran than the Trump administration – to express skepticism about the event. Over time, the description shifted from focusing on Iran to a broader emphasis on peace, stability and security in the Middle East.

For the Trump administration, however, these two topics – stability in the Middle East and confronting Iran – are closely linked. The administration wants to bring Israel and the Sunni Arab states closer to each other and to see them working together against Iran and Hezbollah, two common enemies.

That is one of the main purposes of the administration’s long-gestating peace plan, which could be published after the upcoming Israeli election on April 9.

For years, Israel’s clandestine intelligence and security ties with these Sunni states were kept away from the public eye – mainly because Arab rulers worried about being seen as too close to Israel while the Palestinians in the West Bank and East Jerusalem continued to live under an Israeli military occupation, and those in Gaza continued to suffer from Israeli-implemented restrictions.

Yet over the past two years, the Trump administration has closely monitored what it sees as encouraging signs about an Arab willingness to publicly engage with Israel. These include Netanyahu’s visit to Oman last October; a series of tweets and statements by Bahraini officials in support of Israeli actions against Iran and Hezbollah; a statement by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that Israel has the right to exist; and two public meetings between Netanyahu and Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah al-Sissi.

At the same time, though, the official statements of all Arab governments have emphasized continued support for the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for the creation of an independent Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza with East Jerusalem as its capital.

President Donald Trump embracing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu during a visit to the Israel Museum in Jerusalem, May 23, 2017.
STEPHEN CROWLEY / NYT

That position is the complete opposite of Netanyahu’s right-wing government, and it will be a major surprise if the Trump administration’s peace plan is closer to the Arab Peace Initiative than to Netanyahu’s demands. Unless the Trump administration surprises all of the skeptics who believe its peace plan will be a softer version of the platform of Netanyahu's Likud party, it is all but certain the Palestinians will have an easy time portraying it as too tilted toward Israel, and therefore a “nonstarter” for peace talks.

The main question is whether any Arab countries will take a different position if the Palestinian Authority rejects the peace plan as biased and unfair. White House officials have told Haaretz on two separate occasions over the past year that the plan won’t be a “take it or leave it” document, but rather a potential basis for negotiations.

If Israel accepts that basis (which will probably require a different governing coalition than the outgoing religious, right-wing and pro-settler one) and the PA doesn't, what will the likes of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Egypt say?

While Kushner and Pompeo (together with Trump’s special envoy to the Middle East, Jason Greenblatt) discuss the peace plan with Arab representatives in Warsaw, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas will speak to Arab leaders around the region and hope to receive assurances that they won’t support it unless it meets the demands of the Arab Peace Initiative.

The last time the Trump administration tried to convince Arab countries to take a position more aligned with the United States than the Palestinians was last December during a UN vote on a resolution denouncing Hamas.

Greenblatt approached nine Arab countries and explained why it was important for them – as countries that suffer from terrorism and extremism – to support the resolution. Eventually, though, all nine voted against it and the resolution fell short of the supermajority needed to pass, to the disappointment of both the United States and Israel.

‘A bridge too far’

David Pollock, a former State Department official and currently a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, tells Haaretz that opinion polls across the Gulf states show a growing willingness to engage with Israel, especially on security issues. Pollock has run polls in several Gulf states through local polling organizations and says his numbers show a constant rise in positive views of Israel over the past five years. There is a clear majority in these countries who support the idea that Arab countries should help promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians, he adds.

However, like most other experts and former U.S. officials who have dealt with the issue, Pollock is skeptical that Arab countries will move further in their relationship with the Jewish state while there is no progress on the Israeli-Palestinian front.

“It’s not as easy as it was in the past for the Palestinians to be spoilers in this relationship, but they can still do it,” he says. “When there is an escalation between Israel and the Palestinians, the level of public sympathy toward the Palestinians in most Arab countries gets larger.”

Expecting Arab countries to adopt the Trump peace plan despite Palestinian opposition to it would be a mistake, according to Pollock. “It could be a bridge too far,” he says. “A safer move would be asking them not to directly oppose it – and perhaps hinting at the importance of conducting negotiations.”

One theory that has been suggested by experts and former officials is that Saudi Arabia could perhaps break away from its traditional positions on the issue thanks to the wide support it received from Trump, Pompeo and Kushner in the aftermath of the murder of Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul last October. Former Republican Sen. Bob Corker, who chaired the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations until January, said last year: “A lot of the Middle East peace plan is based upon their support. They feel like they have a lot of equity here.”

Corker was quoted in a Washington Post story on how the Trump administration doubted the Saudi account of Khashoggi’s murder but still defended the monarchy as an “incredible ally.” Tamara Cofman Wittes, a former State Department official and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, wrote in reply to Corker’s statement last October: “That the Trump Admin would roll over for this Saudi ‘investigation’ […] just for the sake of a ‘peace plan’ that is DOA … would be an astonishing political own-goal.”

The summit in Warsaw this week and the diplomacy surrounding it in the region will offer an opportunity for the Trump administration to see whether its “gamble” on Saudi Arabia and Israeli-Arab cooperation against Iran will prove itself.

Even this will only be a partial test of the administration’s worldview, though. The real test will arrive if and when the plan itself is published – and so far there isn’t even a definitive date for its release.